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Dealing with Suicide on Twitter, Online

A Guide to Handling Internet Suicide Threats

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From celebrity tweets to your very own IM, suicide threats online are an increasingly common event on the Internet these days.

Even more common is a respondent’s feelings of loss as how to cope with these sudden suicide crises as they unfold.

From the pages and status messages of IM clients, Facebook and Twitter, a suicide threat can go from possibility to reality without proper care, said Amanda Lehner, online communications manager for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“People have become more comfortable expressing themselves online,” Lehner said, “and even if they broadcast these threats to 100 or 200 friends, it doesn’t feel that way. They feel alone. Does anybody care? It’s a cry for help.”

But, answering that cry and how to respond can often be a difficult task.

First, take every threat seriously and err on the side of caution, Lehner said. The fact a person is threatening to kill themselves means they need help, even if they don’t follow through with the act.

Next, identify whether the person is already in the act of committing suicide.

“In some instances someone gives a direct threat, like they have a gun or will take pills. If you can find out their location, I would advise you call the local police for that person’s community.”

Note, however, law enforcement may not be able to always handle every call they receive when someone threatens suicide online.

Non-specific threats, she said, should be handled with the same compassion and should include offering the Lifeline as help, directing the person to call 1-800-273-TALK.

The Lifeline rings directly to a person’s local crisis hotline, Lehner said, and can provide a wealth of resources including local follow-up care.

Lifeline is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day.

Finally, remember suicide threats are serious and treat each online case as you would in person.

“I have seen some very scary comments from people who are actively suicidal and people actually encourage them to do it online,” Lehner said. “You might be online, but these are real communities and real people. Be compassionate.”

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